SAN SALVADOR – Far from being a victory for democracy, El Salvador’s March 21 presidential election made a mockery of free and democratic elections.

Antonio Saca, the U.S.-backed candidate of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), won the election, easily beating Schafik Handal, the candidate of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Saca received 57.5 percent of the vote tally, and Handal received 35.6 percent.

While pre-election polls pointed to a closer race here, a campaign of fear, intimidation and blackmail carried out by the U.S. and ARENA paved the way for Saca’s victory.

The U.S. government sought to frighten voters into voting against the FMLN. Otto Reich, the Bush administration’s special envoy for the Western Hemisphere, sent a subtle threat to the population when he told Salvadoran journalists on March 13, “We are worried about the impact that a FMLN victory would have on U.S. commercial, economic and migratory relations with El Salvador. We would not have the same confidence with an El Salvador led by a person who is an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.”

Reich suggested that “all Salvadorans … reflect and think about under what flag or ideology could the country prosper or regress, and not to surrender power to a person with an autocratic vision [i.e., Schafik Handal].”

President Bush claimed without evidence that the FMLN was linked to terrorism.

Republican Congressmen Tom Tancredo, Dana Rohrabacher and Dan Burton visited on March 17 and threatened to revise the Temporary Protected Status that benefits 400,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. They also threatened to stop Salvadorans living in the U.S. from sending money to their families in El Salvador.

“The citizens of El Salvador that live in the U.S. also send close to $2 billion to homes in your country each year,” Rohrabacher said. “A hostile communist FMLN regime could make the U.S. reconsider our policies of sending remittances toward El Salvador.”

Eduardo Ortiz, a glass worker living in San Salvador who resided in the U.S. for 10 years and still has family living there, says that such threats frightened many Salvadorans into voting for ARENA.

“Many Salvadorans in the U.S., including my own father, were telling people here not to vote for the FMLN because they feared the money that they were sending would be cut off,” he said.

Numerous employers warned their employees that they would close their businesses if Handal won the presidency.

ARENA and its allies also ran a well-funded, dirty advertising campaign in the mass media, portraying the FMLN as a violent terrorist group clinging to “failed communism.”

There is also evidence that ARENA committed electoral fraud. Prior to the election, Salvadoran religious leaders announced that they had received information from churches in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras that ex-members of the military were organizing to bring thousands of people to vote in El Salvador, offering them money and voting cards to do so. Many busloads from these countries were in fact sighted on election day.

Efrain Tojada, an international election observer from Maryland, visited the Alameda Hotel in San Salvador on March 21 to investigate reports that two busloads of Nicaraguans had arrived to vote. Some claimed to be election observers, but none could produce appropriate credentials. Tojada then talked to the two bus drivers, who told him that ARENA had paid them $300 U.S. to drive the buses to El Salvador, and that each of the Nicaraguan passengers had received $200 to travel here.

Mary Parker, an election observer from Washington, D.C., was stationed at a voting station in San Miguel. She said that her group had seen and received reports of ARENA members buying votes from the poor.

“We repeatedly saw voters – who had been paid – flash their ballots after they had marked them to show ARENA people that they had voted for Tony Saca,” she said. Similar irregularities were reported elsewhere.

While the initially flawed computerized voting system appears to have been fixed, there was wide latitude for fraud, especially with regard to the voting cards. For instance, two cameras used to take photos for voter IDs were stolen from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the manufacture of the IDs was in private hands.

Despite the campaign of fear, blackmail and fraud by ARENA and the U.S., the FMLN nonetheless doubled its vote from five years ago.

Tim Pelzer was an international election observer in El Salvador. He can be reached at